Profits With Honor

June 12, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Two summers ago, the Rev. Dr. Norman Handy was early, angry and vocal in his opposition when Education Alternatives, Inc. was awarded a five-year contract to operate Harlem Park Middle and Elementary schools, just across the park from his Edmondson Avenue church and parsonage.

Today, he is equally forceful in his support for EAI, the for-profit Minneapolis company that is running nine Baltimore schools with contracts for partial services in three others.

The turnaround didn't come all at once. But a stinky bathroom helps explain his change of heart.

As Dr. Handy tells it, one of the bathrooms in the elementary school was so foul-smelling that it became a standard item -- sometimes the only item -- on the agenda for meetings with a parade of school and city officials. The superintendent of schools, the City Council president, a state delegate, a state senator, a council member -- they all solemnly considered the problem and pledged to remedy a stench that consistently wafted down the hallway to greet anyone coming in the main door.

For two-and-a-half years, the maintenance staff did everything it could think of -- digging up the flooring to trace the drainage system, repainting the walls, scrubbing the urinals, but it seemed hopeless.

The gallons of ammonia they employed in this endless mission created another problem; the fumes floated into the pre-K classroom next door. As a result, those 4-year-old boys and girls had to live with open windows all year 'round, freezing temperatures or not.

Then EAI took over, in a deal that included responsibility for maintaining school facilities. A few days before classes began, Dr. Handy, a member of Harlem Park's School Improvement Team, was invited by the new maintenance chief from EAI's partner, Johnson Controls Inc., to check the troublesome bathroom.

He entered. He inhaled. He marveled -- the stench was gone.

When he asked for an explanation of this miracle, the answer was simple and shocking.

The bathroom's exhaust fan had been installed backward. Instead of blowing fumes out of the building, it blew them back in.

That helped melt away Dr. Handy's opposition to a for-profit school enterprise. Everybody profits from schools or they wouldn't exist, he says. Teachers get paid; unions get dues; textbook publishers get sales; food vendors get contracts.

The key is not profits, he says. ''The issue is, is the person making the money benefiting the students?''

Much of the attention to EAI's contract with Baltimore schools has focused on its academic aspects. Dr. Handy suggests that EAI's promise to improve the physical conditions in schools is equally important.

What does it say to a child when schools are squalid, when bathroom walls are painted black in a futile attempt to discourage graffiti (the kids just buy white markers), when many areas of the building are unusable because they store broken furniture and outdated equipment?

The jury is still out on academic progress at Harlem Park and the other Tesseract schools -- as well it should be. Any new program should be given time to prove itself. But other measures of success should also be taken into account. And on that score, the community of Harlem Park has some good things to say about EAI that need to be heard and heeded.

Dr. Handy says that two years ago he and his secretary called the police two or three times a week to help them break up fights outside the church office.

''In this school year, I have not witnessed five incidents,'' he says.

One reason might be that before EAI entered the picture, disciplinary removals, ''DRs,'' were common, with more than 700 students given these three-day suspensions during the year before EAI took over. This school year there have been fewer than 50, and the neighborhood has noticed. It helps that school has become a more pleasant place to be, a place that contrasts brightly with the cramped apartments and trash-strewn streets these children exist in every day.

''Enough has changed that the school is no longer the negative focus of the neighborhood,'' Dr. Handy says. ''It's becoming a community institution again.''

Profits? As far as he's concerned, the old-fashioned profit motive seems to have been more successful in restoring a sense of accountability to the schools than generations of attempts at education reform.

Harlem Park's schools still face enormous problems. But now when you walk the halls, it is possible to feel a sense of optimism, even hope.

That's a far cry from a school marked by a fan blowing the stench of urine into the building and no one, apparently, with a clue as to where the problem lay.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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